Last season, Ryan Shazier added his name to the list with an All-American season that ended with a first-round selection in the NFL draft. Shazier was excellent for the Buckeyes in 2013, but he was a one-man show. The rest of the linebackers left something to be desired.
There are no All-Americans this season, but as a unit the group is better.
“The linebackers were a very poor unit a year ago, they’re one of our strongest now,” head coach Urban Meyer said. “Same coach, coaching better. Phenomenal the way they’ve improved. I think that’s one reason, our unit leaders have done a phenomenal job developing our units.”
That coach would be defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell. Much maligned for the play of the defense as a whole last season, Fickell has gotten the most out of his linebackers this year.
This season the Buckeyes have used a rotation of four linebackers with senior Curtis Grant and freshman Raekwon McMillan splitting time at the middle linebacker position and redshirt freshman Darron Lee and junior Joshua Perry manning the other linebacking positions. Those four have combined for more tackles, tackles for loss and sacks than Ohio State’s three starting linebackers did a year ago and the 2014 unit has done so in one fewer game.
Perry has most mirrored Shazier’s performance, leading the team in tackles with 113 while adding 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Lee is third on the team in tackles with 66, is second in TFL with 13.5 and third with 5.5 sacks. Grant, a captain, has 53 tackles, five TFL and a sack while McMillan has 49 tackles, six TFL and 2.5 sacks.
The competition and injection of youth with Lee and McMillan has contributed to the more balanced performance from the linebackers.
“There’s so much competition in the room that you have no choice but to get better,” Grant said. “Each and every day we come in together – the linebacker group, we come in as a unit – and we learn from each other. If this guy knows something, the other guy picks up on it or just watching film with each other. Everybody brings something different to the table in our room.
“When it comes to coming out here and competing for playing time, all that matters. Everybody’s unselfish. That’s the biggest thing. That’s what makes the linebacker corps a lot better than what we were.”
This year’s top four linebackers are combining for 21.6 tackles, 2.5 TFL and just under a sack per game, up from 18.5 tackles, two TFL and 0.7 sacks that the group had last year.
The 2014 linebackers are also much more involved in the pass defense as all four have at least one pick (Lee has two). No linebacker recorded an interception in 2013.
That pass coverage has made a big impact on the defensive line, tackle Mike Bennett said.
“The (defensive backs) and linebackers have done a much better job this year being able to stay on their receivers and protect their zone so that gives us more time to get to the quarterback,” he said of the D-line.
The departure of Shazier forced a maturation of all the linebackers this season. Whether it was incremental growth by the upperclassmen like Perry and Grant, or the infusion of young talent in McMillan and Lee, the unit has been far more reliable this season than last.
That improvement has helped the Buckeyes get this far and Perry plans for his unit to help the team get even further.
“I wanted to be able to be a better player this year because that’s what the team needed out of me,” the junior said. “That’s what we needed out of the linebacker room, better play and better leadership. To be able to go out there and achieve those goals was awesome, but obviously we’re not done.”